Fandom: Greek Mythology
Character/Pairing: Persephone, Dionysus, references to Hades/Persephone, Zeus/Persephone, Zeus/Semele
Summary: Dionysus, god of death and rebirth, meets Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, in many ways.
Warnings: Non-graphically described rape, mythological brutality.
A/N: Written for Yuletide 2009. All these are directly from the myths.
“…the happiness of those
for whom the day is blessed
but doubly blessed the night.”
- The Baccahe
This story is told in many ways.
In the first, Zeus the Thunderer, lord of Olympus, takes the girl, his own daughter, the Underworld’s queen, in the fruit-heavy fields of summer. Persephone’s hair is pale, burnished by months of sunlight. She does not consent, but neither does she resist – she is another man’s wife, but not above the earth. And Zeus, she knows, will have all the goddesses whose virginity is not sacred. Hers meant nothing once her name changed from Kore, once she felt the sweet-sour pomegranate seed burst between her teeth.
And so she bears Zeus’ child in herself as the night’s lengthen and she travels down to her husband’s realm. There, among the dead, her flesh caressed by that dark world’s lord, Persephone’s child changes. He becomes a strange thing, flesh infused by mystery, by that madness which is the true knowledge of life and death. That madness lies quiet in Persephone, who travels between the realms, daughter of one world and queen of another, but in her son, conceived in sunlight, nurtured in dark and born in the uncertain brightness of another spring, it explodes.
The child’s name is Dionysus.
She leaves the boy and his strange eyes with her mother when autumn comes again. Demeter, all abundant, cares for him as her hair grows white with winter. She whispers into his infant ears the secrets of her Mysteries.
But Hera (Demeter’s sister, Persephone’s aunt, Zeus’ wife and queen) sees the boy and knows that her husband has betrayed her yet again. She looks at the boy and thinks not of Persephone’s motherhood, but of Zeus’ smug fatherhood. And she sends strong-handed Titans to tear the boy to pieces, limb rent from limb, organs spilling onto the hard, cold ground.
Zeus rescues one pieces only from the wreckage – a heart, still beating, blood red as pomegranates and as wine. He takes that heart, warm in his hands, and gives it to a lovesick Theban princess, Semele, with hair of dark curls chiseled like volcanic stone. It slips down her throat and, in an unspoken mystery of rebirth, sparks new life in the safety of her womb.
The tale is told to Persephone by torch-bearing Hecate, and Persephone, silent upon her dark throne, weeps, for her son is hers no longer.
Another story is told.
The story is that Persephone, with the cold seed of Hades inside her, can conceive a child no longer. She lies in bed and touches her hipbones, jagged with long months eating only pomegranates, and she thinks of her mother’s warmth, her softness, the way her arms can curve. She knows that to her, all that is denied, and she buries her head in her husband’s shoulder, lonely.
Above the earth, a half-sibling is conceived for her, son of her father, Zeus, and a mortal girl, one of his numberless conquests. By Hera’s jealousy the girl is destroyed, consumed by the fire of her lover, but the child is saved, an infant, vulnerable with the months he lost within his mother’s womb, his eyes lit with the fire by which his mother died. He must be hidden, protected from Hera’s sight.
Strong-calved Hermes carries him down beneath the earth, to his childless half-sister. And Persephone raises the boy, who plays games by the banks of Lethe, and learns the screams of Tartarus only as another beauty of the world. When Persephone returns to her mother’s house and again plays Kore, Rhea, Zeus’ mother and the child’s grandmother, cares for him, for her own children grew to adulthood in the caves of Crete or in their father’s stomach, far from her eyes.
These women love the boy, whose name is Dionysus, and with them he learns the fluidity of the world, that a family can mean anything, that death is beautiful, that the darkness is made of all the brightest colors of the world. He watches Persephone in the arms of her husband, her lips red with pomegranate, weeping and laughing in the same breath, and knows that ecstasy means many things.
When he is grown to dark-eyed adulthood he goes up to the world of humanity, for in the sunlight he has things he must grow, but he never forgets that he has a home within the earth.
A third story is told. In this story, the child Dionysus is hidden, not by the heavy layers of earth and death, but by women’s clothes – long skirts, curls in his dark hair, paint reddening his cheeks. He is given to Semele’s sister, the queen Ino, who does not know how to raise this god-child who traverses all bounds. She is kind, and does the best she can, but the young god bursts in wildness from her human tutelage. Still young, he goes to Asia, dressing sometimes as a man, sometimes as a woman, as his mood suits, and everywhere forming his worship, molding it out of his own hands. Vines wind around his bare forearms and to all he is beloved.
His journeys take him to the limits of the sky, to his father’s palace, where he stands before his stepmother’s simmering fury and demands his place with a red smile. When it is given to him he demands something else – his fire-murdered mother, beloved in his imagination, returned to life and given glimmering immortality. Yes, he is told, if he desires it, but he must fetch her from beneath the earth himself.
This prospect does not frighten him: he travels down, singing with a throaty voice, his thyrsus marking the time. His vines make a bridge for him across the dark, seething waters of Acheron, and soon he travels through the mists of Hades, his songs echoing on the silence like blows upon the taut hide of a drum. In the Fields of Asphodel he finds his mother, a girl as she was when she died, her eyes blinded with the same fire that brightened his, and leads her with him like a Maenad. With a mad solemnity he promises to teach her to dance.
As he leaves he does not apologize to his uncle for stealing a citizen from his realm. He only leaves vines winding around the trunks of the pomegranate trees, a parting gift. Soon they hang heavy with grapes which, when pressed, make a wine strong as death.
Persephone watches him go, and in her silence she understands.